the end of January, from the day French forces pushed Islamist
militants out of Timbuktu, women in the fabled city responded.
After ten months of Islamist control, they put away veils and
retrieved high-heeled shoes. “It’s been a very long
time since I put on makeup,” one middle-aged woman told
a journalist, displaying the black kohl highlighting her eyes.
“I’ve put it on to make myself beautiful. So that
men see me.” But in the most exhilarating celebration
of the end of their oppressive control -- in front of the international
press -- women came out into the city’s streets to dance.
dancing of these women, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, points
to a fact that’s important but largely overlooked in the
fight against Islamist extremists: the higher women’s
status in a community, the less amenable is that community to
Islamist militancy and the less likely that community is to
be involved in religiously motivated violence. This potent trend
is evident in statistical patterns and research of women’s
status and religious violence, which I have tracked together
with my students. In tracking extremism and violence, Islam
is not the issue -- women’s freedoms are.
shows us why. Militants are trampling on rights that women had
before the occupation -- not least to work and dress as they
wish. Moving forward, US interests in the struggle against militant
Islamists will depend on supporting communities that value women.
With external support, such communities become an antidote to
the expansion of the Islamists, without the need for military
is notably the case with the Tuaregs in Northern Mali, a Muslim
tribal confederation in which women have been held in greater
esteem than is generally the case in North Africa or the Middle
East. Tuareg women, for example, more easily work alongside
men, walk unescorted in public and can be appreciated more readily
for their artistic talents.
communities in the North had suffered deeply under the Islamists,
who banned uncovered women, music, alcohol -- and have always
dancing in Timbuktu followed a dizzying chain of events in Mali
in the last year, with a coup in the capital Bamako, a seizure
of northern Mali by the Tuareg nationalist movement and Islamist
militants, and the Islamist expulsion of the Tuareg forces to
gain full Islamist rule in the North. The Islamist militants
then sought to expand south, threatening even Bamako. At that
point, in mid-January, the French intervened, most recently
expelling the Islamists from the main cities in northern Mali.
Those communities in the North had suffered deeply under the
Islamists. Stonings and amputations by the militants further
scarred life in these cities.
the seizure of northern Mali last year, the Tuareg nationalists,
in their decades-long fight to wrest independence from Bamako,
made an alliance of convenience with the Islamists. The nationalists,
represented by the largely secular MNLA (Mouvement national
pour la libération de l'Azawad) movement, cooperated
with the Islamists for pragmatic reasons, but displayed little
ideological affinity. This alliance was naïve; alliances
with Islamist elements have often disappointed, from Leftists
in Iran leading up to the 1979 Iranian revolution to, more recently,
liberals in Egypt in the period leading to the ouster of the
Mubarak regime. After the Islamist hijacking of the gains in
northern Mali, the MNLA began to fight against these militants,
but they were resource-poor in the extreme while the Islamists
were amply supplied with weapons and other necessities, sources
from the region told me, from sympathizers in Algeria and Qatar.
clear pattern with Islamist militants is that they move about
most easily in patriarchal and tribal areas. Where have they
had their most marked successes? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen,
North Africa -- and indeed across the Middle East. These militant
groups are interwoven with the severe patriarchy of the region.
Understanding tribal patriarchy is key to understanding the
militants, and even the non-violent Islamists. In the kinship
groups of these patriarchal tribal societies, women become symbolically
very important, as they are literally and culturally core to
the reproduction of the family, clan and tribal lineage. In
the more patriarchal tribes, women’s ‘virtue,’
notably virginity before marriage, is the foundation of their
honour, and is controlled by their fathers, brothers and husbands.
Women become ‘protected’ to the point of being kept
inside their homes for much of their lives. Ironically their
importance becomes the basis for their oppression.
militants have highlighted this patriarchy, and see the West
as a corrupting force in this light. Thus the issue of women
figures large in their ideologies, and women are the first to
suffer when the Islamists claim power. This was the case of
the women of northern Mali who were forced to veil themselves,
forced to stay at home and to not work.
some years now I have delved deeply into the question of why
women’s sexuality and status looms so large for political
and militant movements from Afghanistan and Pakistan through
to North Africa. This focus on women is evident from surveys
to ideological tracts, from statistical studies to ethnographies
of daily life in these regions. Indeed, the place of women seems
at times an obsessive concern. The default explanation of America
has been to point to Islam as the driving force in this regard.
contrary to such a perception, in statistical analysis I have
undertaken with the demographer Natalie Deckard, we find that
a country being majority Muslim as such does not help us predict
religiously motivated violence. A high level of patriarchy does.
This is also relevant for the non-violent Islamists. Women’s
status is already eroding in the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood,
which received roughly two-thirds of the vote in the first elections.
Women regularly report now of being harassed by police for being
out alone at night, or by security teams at clubs. One well-known
club for example, the Shams, demands women wear head-to-toe
bathing suits where before western bathing suits sufficed. The
affect is social as well as political; Egyptians report simply
fearing doing anything that would be considered objectionable
to the Brotherhood.
Algerian sociologist described to me a conversation she had
in the late 1990s with the Algerian general heading the counterinsurgency
against militant Islamists. The general explained one way he
evaluated the successes and failures of the fight against the
insurgents: he drove to different parts of the capital Algiers
and elsewhere in the country, he said, and observed how the
women were dressed. If they dressed in ways that the Islamists
approved -- that women were fully enveloped in fabric and that
their dress was colorless and not diaphanous -- the government
was losing the fight. If not, then the war was proceeding more
hopefully. In the fights ahead of Islamist militants -- and
there will be many more fights -- keep an eye on women. Much
will be revealed. Hopefully we will see much more dancing in